Smartest Kids in the World: What can a parent do?

Perhaps you aren’t able to emigrate to Finland but you still want your children to get a good education. You aren’t willing to assume that a country (the U.S.) that has been running a mediocre public school system for 100 years is suddenly going to snap out of its football-induced stupor. Does Amanda Ripley’s The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way offer any practical tips for what a conscientious parent might do? Yes.

How about joining the PTA?

PTA parents cared deeply about their children and went out of their way to participate in school functions. During the 1980s and 1990s, American parents and teachers had been bombarded by claims that children’s self-esteem needed to be protected from competition (and reality) in order for them to succeed. Despite a lack of evidence, the self-esteem movement took hold in the United States in a way that it did not in most of the world. So, it was understandable that PTA parents focused their energies on the nonacademic side of their children’s school. They dutifully sold cupcakes at the bake sales and helped coach the soccer teams. They doled out praise and trophies at a rate unmatched in other countries. They were their kids’ boosters, their number-one fans. These were the parents that Kim’s principal in Oklahoma praised as highly involved. And PTA parents certainly contributed to the school’s culture, budget, and sense of community. However, there was not much evidence that PTA parents helped their children become critical thinkers. In most of the countries where parents took the PISA survey, parents who participated in a PTA had teenagers who performed worse in reading.

By 2009, Schleicher and his colleagues had managed to convince thirteen countries and regions to include parents in the PISA. Five thousand of the students who took the PISA test brought home a special survey for their parents. The survey asked how they had raised their children and participated in their education, starting from when they were very young. Strange patterns emerged. For example, parents who volunteered in their kids’ extracurricular activities had children who performed worse in reading, on average, than parents who did not volunteer, even after controlling for other factors like socioeconomic background. Out of thirteen very different places, there were only two (Denmark and New Zealand) in which parental volunteering had any positive impact on scores at all, and it was small.

Giving your children lots of encouragement and praise?

In one Columbia University study, 85 percent of American parents surveyed said that they thought they needed to praise their children’s intelligence in order to assure them they were smart. However, the actual research on praise suggested the opposite was true. Praise that was vague, insincere, or excessive tended to discourage kids from working hard and trying new things. It had a toxic effect, the opposite of what parents intended. To work, praise had to be specific, authentic, and rare.

Knocking yourself out like Tiger Mom?

Korean parenting, by contrast, were coaches. Coach parents cared deeply about their children, too. Yet they spent less time attending school events and more time training their children at home: reading to them, quizzing them on their multiplication tables while they were cooking dinner, and pushing them to try harder. They saw education as one of their jobs. This kind of parenting was typical in much of Asia—and among Asian immigrant parents living in the United States. Contrary to the stereotype, it did not necessarily make children miserable. In fact, children raised in this way in the United States tended not only to do better in school but to actually enjoy reading and school more than their Caucasian peers enrolled in the same schools.

While American parents gave their kids placemats with numbers on them and called it a day, Asian parents taught their children to add before they could read. They did it systematically and directly, say, from six-thirty to seven each night, with a workbook—not organically, the way many American parents preferred their children to learn math. The coach parent did not necessarily have to earn a lot of money or be highly educated. Nor did a coach parent have to be Asian, needless to say. The research showed that European-American parents who acted more like coaches tended to raise smarter kids, too.

What if, due to a lifetime of living in America, you are too lazy to do that?

Parents who read to their children weekly or daily when they were young raised children who scored twenty-five points higher on PISA by the time they were fifteen years old. That was almost a full year of learning. More affluent parents were more likely to read to their children almost everywhere, but even among families within the same socioeconomic group, parents who read to their children tended to raise kids who scored fourteen points higher on PISA. By contrast, parents who regularly played with alphabet toys with their young children saw no such benefit.

And at least one high-impact form of parental involvement did not actually involve kids or schools at all: If parents simply read for pleasure at home on their own, their children were more likely to enjoy reading, too. That pattern held fast across very different countries and different levels of family income. Kids could see what parents valued, and it mattered more than what parents said.

By contrast, other parental efforts yielded big returns, the survey suggested. When children were young, parents who read to them every day or almost every day had kids who performed much better in reading, all around the world, by the time there were fifteen. It sounded like a public-service cliché: Read to your kids. Could it be that simple? Yes, it could, which was not to say that it was uninteresting. After all, what did reading to your kids mean? Done well, it meant teaching them about the world—sharing stories about faraway places, about smoking volcanoes and little boys who were sent to bed without dinner. It meant asking them questions about the book, questions that encouraged them to think for themselves. It meant sending a signal to kids about the importance of not just reading but of learning about all kinds of new things. As kids got older, the parental involvement that seemed to matter most was different but related. All over the world, parents who discussed movies, books, and current affairs with their kids had teenagers who performed better in reading. Here again, parents who engaged their kids in conversation about things larger than themselves were essentially teaching their kids to become thinking adults. Unlike volunteering in schools, those kinds of parental efforts delivered clear and convincing results, even across different countries and different income levels.

What if you’re too busy watching TV and playing Xbox to read? Can you be savvy about choosing your child’s school? Ripley has an entire appendix on the subject.

If you are trying to understand a school, you can ignore most of the information you are given. Open houses? Pretty much useless. Spending per student? Beyond a certain baseline level, money does not translate into quality in education anywhere. The smartest countries in the world spend less per pupil than the United States. Average class size? Not as important as most people think, except in the earliest years of schooling. In fact, the highest-performing countries typically have larger classes than the United States. The research shows that the quality of the teaching matters more than the size of the class. Test data? More helpful, but very hard to decipher in most places. How good is the test? How much value is the school adding beyond what kids are already learning at home? More and more U.S. school districts have this kind of information, but do not make it public. Instead, the best way to gauge the quality of a school is to spend time—even just twenty minutes—visiting classrooms while school is in session. When you get there, though, it’s important to know where to look. Parents tend to spend a lot of time staring at the bulletin boards in classrooms. Here is a better idea: Watch the students instead. Watch for signs that all the kids are paying attention, interested in what they are doing, and working hard. Don’t check for signs of order; sometimes learning happens in noisy places where the kids are working in groups without much input from the teacher. Some of the worst classrooms are quiet, tidy places that look, to adults, reassuringly calm. Remember that rigorous learning actually looks rigorous. If the kids are whizzing through a worksheet, that’s not learning. That’s filling out a form. Kids should be uncomfortable sometimes; that’s okay. They should not be frustrated or despairing; instead, they should be getting help when they need it, often from each other.

There should be a sense of urgency that you can feel.

I saw bored kids in every country. Boredom is the specter that haunts children from kindergarten to graduation on every continent. In American classrooms, I watched a girl draw a beautiful rose tattoo on her arm with a ballpoint pen; she did it slowly, meticulously, as though she were serving a life sentence.

In the best schools, though, boredom was the exception rather than the norm. You could walk into five classrooms and see just one or two students who had drifted away, mentally or physically, rather than eight or ten. That’s how you know that you are in a place of learning.

Don’t ask, “Do you like this teacher?” or “Do you like your school?”

The first thing I usually ask is straightforward: What are you doing right now? Why? You’d be amazed how many kids can answer the first question but not the second.


7 thoughts on “Smartest Kids in the World: What can a parent do?

  1. Jeremy: The book doesn’t talk about homeschooling. If you extrapolate from Ripley’s book to homeschool you would expect that children who are homeschooled would track their parents’ educational achievement (i.e., parents who are well-educated, like teachers in Finland, will be able to deliver a good education to their own children while parents who are poorly educated, like teachers in the U.S., will not).

  2. Public/private/home…which way to go?
    #1. You can’t control your children. They really are individuals with control of their own lives…really.

    #2. The decision is not all about academics, its about social preparation. You are aiming for an environment the ADULT will thrive in. The social and educational skills needed to survive as a wall street “banker” are different than those of a not for profit CEO. Same for military officer and baker and candlestick maker. I’ve seen kids who are really smart, and socially adept in their group, fail when they hit the streets because the environment they fell into didn’t fit their training. This is true for smart public school kids as well as smart private school kids. My experience with home schooled kids is low. I haven’t found the horror stories you hear (they can’t work with others, etc), but I do see a bit of “fish out of water” feel about them.

    Try this for a similar view.

    #3 The world is changing fast.

    If you have the connections to ensure your kids will end up in the upper 1%, then private is the way to go. If not….I think flexibility and broader social experiences will be much more valuable tools. My suggestion is to mix it up. Some private, some public and some home tutoring. When I mean home tutoring, I mean it. Real structured tutoring. Teach something new, I recommend Geometry. It’s always taught too late in most schools, and it is rigorous enough to stretch the mind. Others include Anatomy and Physiology. Anatomy is just memorization. Any kid can do that, even first graders. If you start early enough it will help them prepare for all of the other memorization they will need to do. Physiology is usually something most are interested in “how their body works”. It shows them the system approach to life and the interdependence of systems. You could also do some history. It is the last place you can find reading that is interesting to boys. Finally, but really, first, teach phonics. It will open more doors than anything else you can do at an early age.

    They are your kids. It’s your responsibility to teach them, not the schools.

    Finally, smart kids, those who realize the world is actually not what it appears to be, will become isolated if they live in America. If you want you kids to “fit in” don’t make them smart. Send them to a good private or excellent public school, force them to take the AP courses, do the proper amount of volunteering and be a good brown noser. They will go far in life and be successful. Success is not a measure of intelligence and/or fulfillment and “smartness” is not the way to get ahead.

    Remember –
    “There are people who are good at doing things. There are people who are good at kissing ass and taking credit. These bundles of skills seem to be at odds so that one rarely finds them in the same person. In most areas of human endeavor, if you want to become famous or just put food on the table and are forced to choose between the skills bundles, it is much better to pick ass-kissing and credit-taking. ” — Philp Greenspun

  3. Philip: Homeschooling does not entirely rely on the parent. There are many good curricula that allow a child to learn beyond the parent’s individual knowledge level. Also parent co-ops allow for sharing of strengths and resources.

    I have no children, but would not dream of putting a child into a public school in America today. After all, if this man can outpace public schools (note that his 12 year old performs at a 12th grade level) while living in a cave and teaching from old encyclopedias, what could a person do if they had and applied normal resources?

  4. JohnO: Your perspective that a motivated parent can coach a child beyond the parent’s own educational attainment is reflected to some extent in Ripley’s book when she talks about Korean parents. However, the Korean parent is helping the child to study and prepare in the context of a standard school, not actually being the teacher.

    (And thanks for the link about the cave-dwelling girl, but I did a couple of Google searches and couldn’t confirm the story. Also, remember that the American “12th grade level” is not a very high standard. Children as young as 9 have entered college and done reasonably well so presumably they were at the 12th grade level when they were 9. Check out for a follow-up on Sho Yano, who graduated from Loyola at 12 and from medical school at 21, earning a PhD in the middle (age 18). says he was homeschooled by his (Korean-American) mom (the Wikipedia article says that Yano’s sister was kind of an underachiever by comparison… she didn’t get her bachelor’s degree until age 13). You can see them interviewed at!english-about/cwdy indicates that the mom, Kyung Yano, has a master’s from Ohio University and is the author of ten books.

    So anyway, I don’t think that anything Ripley says in her book is inconsistent with homeschooled children of educated hard-working parents doing way better than kids who go to a standard American public or private school. Nor could Ripley’s book be used as an argument against a parent with a mediocre education coordinating a superior education for a homeschooled child.)

  5. We homeschooled both of our kids K-12. FWIW, my son is a Dean’s List junior in college, and my daughter is headed out next month as a Freshman with a near full-ride scholarship to a large state school. So we apparently didn’t screw them up too much.

    Yes, my wife and I are both college educated, and I have an MBA. However, I think that reflects more in that we take education seriously than any actual advantage that the kids got due to us being educated. Our educational theory, to the extent that we have one, is that once you get reading / writing / math up to about Algebra I or Geometry mastered, everything else is electives. Kids on a college track education should hit that around 9th or 9th grade. After that, we pretty much left them on their own. My son spent his time reading history books, my daughter taking free online STEM classes from MIT and other schools.

    I really think the prime advantage to homeschooling is that HSers don’t lose the natural love of learning that most kids enter kindergarten with. Somewhere between 1st to 3rd grade that spark just vanishes from a lot of kids, and school becomes work instead of fun. That doesn’t happen with most HSers. And that, IMO, is the primary reason HSers do well. They keep learning, because they keep enjoying it.

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